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My Three Cats and the Real Artist

by Luann Udell on 5/5/2016 9:09:48 AM

This post is by Luann Udell, regular contributing author for FineArtViews. She's blogged since 2002 about the business side--and the spiritual inside--of art. She says, "I share my experiences so you won't have to make ALL the same mistakes I did...."  For ten years, Luann also wrote a column ("Craft Matters") for The Crafts Report magazine (a monthly business resource for the crafts professional) where she explored the funnier side of her life in craft. She's a double-juried member of the prestigious League of New Hampshire Craftsmen (fiber & art jewelry). Her work has appeared in books, magazines and newspapers across the country and she is a published writer.


I may not like your art, but I celebrate the fact that it means so much to you, that you have a voice, a vision, and that you chose to share it with the world.


I have three cats.  One I’ve had for over a decade, the other two are very new. (And coincidentally, both are black and roughly the same age.)


Old Kitty is affable, gets along with the dogs, moves like a raccoon, and does not adjust well to other cats. If I laugh out loud at something she does, she does it again. She hates to be held, but loves to be petted. She prefers floor toys to “air” toys.


Middle Kitty is also affable, and also gets along with the dogs. She gets along well with other cats. She will tolerate being held, but hates to be petted. She loves air toys, and is extremely athletic. She, too, is very funny to watch, but doesn’t seem to repeat when she hears me laughing.


New Kitty is anxious. She’s afraid of the dogs, she’s afraid of the other cats, she’s afraid of sudden moves and loud noises. But she is fearless about moving from her ‘safe’ place in our basement up into the living areas of our home. She’s determined to become a part of our household. She loves being held, and loves to be petted. We took her in off the streets, and she is only just now learning to play. She’s not very funny to watch.


Which one is the best cat?




Why on earth would I rate my cats? After all, animal lovers know that our pets are as unique as people are. They have their good points and their annoying habits. They vary in the degree of affection they demand and give.  And the value they add to our lives is impossible to quantify. Yes, we can live without pets in our lives, but if you love animals, you know life is richer for their presence.


(If you don’t care for animals, substitute ‘children’. Or ‘friends’. I was going to say ‘or spouses’ but I’m not going there.)


Why, then, do we so easily discuss artists in terms of who’s good, better, best?


I do it. You do it. We all do it. We’re competitive by nature, and our human culture stresses that competition.


Who’s the best student in the class? Who draws the best horses? Who won that race? Which baseball team won the World Series last year? Who makes the most money, and who’s the smartest person in the room? (Notice I am deliberately not including politics.) (Oops!)


And yet, it’s also human nature to embrace individuality, and inclusiveness.  We strive to help those who have less than we do. We try to create a level playing field for people who live with disabilities so they can thrive. We applaud those who fight for the underdog, the underserved, the overlooked, those who are ignored ridiculed, or even attacked for being different in any way.


And yet we are so quick to judge the work of other artists, and even our own.


We argue about the difference between what is art and what is craft. Some people believe any work of 2D art is worth more than the finest example of handcraft.  We talk endlessly about what a ‘real artist’ is. We even create levels of respect for the medium we work with: Oil is ‘better’ than acrylic, acrylic is ‘more respected’ than watercolor, anything is better than colored pencil or sketching, and this is often reflected in the price people are willing to pay for these categories. Consider a clay sculpture that is then used to create a mold for a bronze sculpture. Which will call for the higher value—the original clay piece? Or the cast item that can be made into multiples?


Who’s the most skilled? That’s a can of worms. Next!


Who’s the most famous? Who sells the most?  Shaky ground. You may be a ‘successful’ artist (and we’ve had many discussions on exactly what that really means, you may be in all the fine galleries and in all the art books and magazines. But put ten people in a room, ask them who is the best artist out there right now, and I can almost guarantee there will be at least one person who disagrees).  


Years ago, I participated in a workshop called “The Picasso Principle”. The instructor examined Picasso’s undisputed fame, yet listed many artists who are historically considered ‘better’ than Picasso at drawing, composition, color, painting, etc. But no one was better than him at marketing. And so today you can  ask any person on the street to name an artist in history, and most will say “Picasso!”—even if they cannot name a single work by him.


Yes, there are standards and measures of technique. There are competitions, there are honors awarded, there are noted ‘masters’ throughout art history. (Though again, I will also point out that entire genders, race, and countries were systematically left out of the so-called definitive textbooks of art history.)


And yet all of this is based on opinion, personal, professional, and historical.


I bring this up because of several conversations I had recently with other artists. In one, someone mentioned a gallery run by two artists. “Now, Joe Blow is a good artist!” they said. And pointedly did not mention the other.


In another group conversation, a fellow artist walking by, and I jokingly said to the others, “Now there’s a real artist!” A person took it personally, and reacted badly. Lesson learned. (My jokes are bad.)


The last was a discussion about artists who have been in a guild a long, long, long time. “Their work is stale, and some haven’t even created new work in years!” one person exclaimed. “They shouldn’t be included anymore!”  I disagreed. It costs us nothing to include them, they contribute to the demographics and our finances, they have their following, and their body of work. Who knows why they aren’t making new work? Health issues? Financial problems? I would hate to have anyone judge me based on my occasional fallow periods. “If they were good enough to get in, they should be allowed to stay until they decide to leave. If and when they try to re-jury back in, then we can judge.” And the others agreed.


It all boils down to this:


I may not like you, and/or I may not like your art. I may not like your medium, or your process. You may not meet the standards of whatever group you’re trying to join; they may be wrong, or they may be right. You may be ‘successful’, or you may feel like you’re not doing it right.


But if you are doing your best to make your art

If you have something to say with your art, even if it’s only ‘look what I made!”

If you have a vision of the world, and you share that

If your work connects emotionally, spiritually, metaphysically with others, even one person (notice I did not say ‘physically’ unless your medium is glue.)

If you strive, as you can, to make it better, to improve your skills, your marketing, your relationships with your audience

If all you do is make the world a better place for even one person


Then you, and your art, have a place in the world.


And you are a ‘good enough’ artist for me.


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Related Posts:

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Does Your Passion Change the World?

Lessons From the Open Studio: For Heaven's Sake, Accept Credit Cards!

Lessons From the Gym: Poor Old Michael Finnegan

Topics: advice for artists | art and culture | art and psychology | art and society | FineArtViews | inspiration | Luann Udell 

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Susan L. Vignola
Good analogies to make an important point.

Pamela Beer
Nice post, Luann.

Respect is key.

Mark Brockman
I guess we are destined to judge others and what they do even if we don't mean to. But just like people, animals and plants we may not like some of them but all of them deserve respect. All art good or bad (assuming the art does no real harm), deserves respect.

Recently, in a private email I was harshly judged by another artist who does not know me (we have never met). He judged my art, my teaching, my abilities and me personally. At first I was angry, then I was sad. Not sad for me but for the individual who attacked me. He may have issues that caused him to be angry and harsh. His words, though hurtful, are his opinion and he has a right to an opinion as we all do. So rather then attack back I let it go. After all it's just one's opinion. He may not respect me, I may not like what he said, but as a human being, I respect him.

Luann, I think this is one of the best posts I've ever read here. It's a lesson, not just in terms of art, but life. Thanks.

Karen Burnette Garner
Luann, thank you for this article. It came at the very time I needed to read it. An artist friend of mine, quite accomplished in showing and teaching, enjoys my leads and opportunities shared, but never reciprocates, or even compliments my art. It really stings, and those slights often appear when I am at my lowest. Does that make me a lesser artist, or just a lesser artist in her eyes? And should it matter anyway? Even as a successful artist, and I do consider myself one, those little digs do much to discourage. We have enough people who do that as a matter of course. So should artists, who know the process and know the life, tear at each other, even in passing?

I am of the mind that anyone who creates, does so from the heart initially. If they are trying to sell, then they open themselves up present and promote their work in successful ways - the focus changes to marketing. But the initial creating belongs to them. Some respect is due, even if we don't put our approval on what/how they created. They used their voice, and that is "good enough."

Celeste Larkin-Dion
Thank you Luann for this essay. You have made a very telling comparison between cats, eg. ,their qualities and "faults" , and humans (artists). When you boil it down to basics, we all have our strengths and weaknesses, depending on who is making the judgment. Taste is a very personal thing, also; and there is enough art to satisfy all tastes, which is as it should be, to say nothing of the pleasure that is experienced by the artist who creates it, regardless of its value to any other person. Embrace diversity!

Celeste Larkin-Dion

Luann Udell
Thank you, Susan and Pamela, glad to know this article resonated with you. I love me a metaphor!

What a great article to read and ponder. In a painting group in which I participate, the understanding is that we do not judge or critique the paintings, just post encouragement and acknowledgement. These folks are flourishing and coming up with some delightful and deeply intriguing work and are beginning to believe they are artists.

I agree that marketing is a large element of success. However, I think your last sentence, "If all you do is make the world a better place for even one person
Then you, and your art, have a place in the world"
is the most compelling part of your post.

I recently read that "the committed journey of your emotional/spiritual healing is possibly more noteworthy than your worldly accomplishments"

...perhaps many artists/people fail to earn that for themselves and live with a sense of failure and discontent.

..."but money, fame, success might, or might not, allow you deep peace and true joy." ~quote by Janice Masters

So glad I read this today! ~Hobby

Luann Udell
Mark, thank you from the bottom of my heart for your comment, and for sharing your painful story. I had a similar experience that began years ago, with another (internationally-aclaimed) artist. It hurts. But I finally realized that something in my work challenged them, perhaps even frightened them, full of something that is not present in their own work. It helped me let go of their harsh words.

Sounds like this may have happened with your 'admirer', too. When someone reacts so strongly to our work, even when it's so negative and hurtful, I believe it's actually a sign that we're doing something powerful.

There's a book I highly recommend to everyone, especially artists and creative people who put the work of their heart out into the world. It's called THE NIBBLE THEORY and the Kernel of Power, by the late Kaleel Jamison. It's brief, it's illustrated, it's a quick read. But its message is powerful: When you shine bright in the world, there are others who will try to nibble you down to size, so you don't intimidate them. I actually buy extra copies to give away to people who need to read it, it's that good.

Janet Pirozzi-Riolo
Some great points - I am an art teacher at our local art center- this Monday we start a new semester and I plan on reading your post to the class - a great way to start off!

Luann Udell
Karen, I feel your pain. Though your friend refrains from snips and swipes about your work, the silence can feel just as loud.

Years ago, when my kids were babes, the topic of ugly babies came up. What do you say to the proud parents of an ugly baby?? Suggestions ranged from "Now THAT'S a baby!" to "Cute shirt!" Which eventually led to my article The Most Beautiful Baby in the World

Another baby analogy: The work we make and put out into the world is the work of our vulnerable heart. You are sensitive to what your friend says because a) she's your friend, and b) your is your 'baby.' It could sound like she's saying, "Cute shirt". But it's also possible she simply prefers different kinds of work.

Another insight that has helped me is knowing that, as human beings, we've evolved to pay attention to the bad stuff. Being alert to potential harm keeps us safe in the world. But it also means we dwell on the negative things people say, forgetting all the wonderful things people say. Hence, we tend to think of the bad stuff as 'the truth', and the good stuff as just 'people being nice.' Embrace the good stuff, Karen.

And just sayin', I especially love your work 'just off the easel'. Start a little folder to keep the good comments and feedback you get (and I'm sure you get tons!) Next time you feel a little wobbly, pull that folder out, and read your fan mail. :^)

Luann Udell
I did my best to link to the Beautiful Baby article, but failed. Just Google "The Most Beautiful Baby Luann" and you'll find it.

Luann Udell
Janet, that is so cool!! Thank you! The best gift you can give a writer (after a paying gig) is to enlarge their audience. I so appreciate that. :^)

And it's good for emerging artists to get over the self-judgy good-better-best thing. Yes, it's important to practice, to improve our skills, to grow as an artist. But so many creative people decide they aren't good enough--and walk away. What a loss to the world!

Patricia Stafford
Luann, thank you for your essay which is meaningful on so many levels. As one who has lost a best friend (who was also a great artist, cut short by illness), I sometimes wonder about my quest for new friends, because of course nobody can replace the one I lost. But then, the best friendships are eternal, and all are unique.

Karen, your landscapes magnificently capture the spirit of the Carolinas ... I've traveled there and recognize the feeling in your paintings. And your abstract "On the Corner" is really cool! :)

Mark, as for harsh judgments on your artwork, I've come to take such feedback as compliments and even as an indicator of which piece I should enter in a juried show or put up for sale online. My first fine art photo that sold off an art gallery wall was one that somebody had negatively reacted to on my blog, so I'm grateful to the critic who inspired me to enter it in the show. Because you (or I) sure did get a reaction to your work ... meaning it was worth a strong reaction. So the person who judged you cared enough to take time out of their day and contact you. Of course, positive reactions are much more welcome and easier to digest. And to me, your style is absolutely professional and very appealing, I like it very much!

Luann Udell
Wise words, Patricia, all around. See, Karen, we told you so! :^)

And excellent feedback for Mark, too. The best art elicits a connection, a reaction, and deserves a second look. Actually, great insight for ALL of us.

Mark Brockman
Thanks guys. After over forty years of this art stuff I've developed a thick skin. Negative remarks about my work is ok by me, at least they looked. I have my opinions about art, if one doesn't agree with those opinions, cool, it can make for a lively debate. What they may say about me personally, we'll get to know me first, then you can dislike me :).

Luann I'll check the book out thanks.

Obadinah Heavner
Luann, your post hit the spot! I often find myself telling people "there's art and the business of art" as a way of entering the kind of conversation you describe here. Your analogy gets deeper into the point though. Art is about a relationship with our selves and with the world. Competition is a rather uncomfortable part of it, necessary even, but truly not the most meaningful.

Luann Udell
Nicely put, Obadinah!

Luann Udell
Mark, sometimes I have a thick skin, too. There are times, though, and that's when those comments 'get through'. What's really scary is when there's just enough truth included, to really cut deep. We see the true, and (incorrectly) believe it's ALL true.

I call it, turning the knife so it can get past the ribs. Not a lovely picture, but to the point. (Pun not intended. Much.)

Luann Udell
Arggh! Wish we could edit these comments. Meant to say, "There are times when I'm more vulnerable--health issues, stressful events, lack of sleep, etc. for whatever reason, and that's when those comments 'get through'.

Diane Eason
Thank you Thank you for this great article and sharing - made my day

alan phillips
Luann, so much fun in the way you tell the story...I think I am the middle cat:) Your essays are as wonderful, true, artful and authentic as the pieces you make. Thank you for your voice and wisdom.

Marilyn Wendling
Great article! I always look forward to reading your perspective. Thanks Luann! From a newly transplanted New Englandah ð???

Fred Emmert
EVERYONE who thinks they want to be an ARTIST must read your epistle PRIOR to their first sketch, stroke or dab of paint.

This post makes me want to give you a big hug!

Camille Bodey
Thank you Luann for this article. I especially liked your comment re. 'if your art makes a difference and gives happiness to another person it's a reason to keep on doing,' I'm paraphrasing what you wrote and how it spoke to me.
Camille Bodey

Luann Udell
Celeste, your post just appeared for me, so sorry I missed it! And I agree with you, the first benefit of making art is to the artist. We have that need, to make it, and everything else is gravy. Getting it out into the world takes that benefit further, and finding its best audience is the pinnacle.

Luann Udell
Hobby, your post just popped up for me, too! Crazy day....
I agree with you about marketing. If we're looking for recognition, sales, etc. then yes, we can't just sit in our studios and hope the world comes looking for us. Art has two levels of power--they joy and release that comes from making it, and the joy and connection it brings to others.
But if we only focus on the money, the fame, then we may have lost sight of what art is all about.
YES, I want to sell my art.
NO, I don't want to make it safer, smaller, cheaper, in order to do that.

Luann Udell
Diane, you've made MY day!
Alan, you are too funny. May I now call you Noddy? :^)
Marilyn, where did YOU land?
Fred, I appreciate the sentiment, thank you! Er...I'm now required reading???
Carla, bring it on!
Camille, you paraphrased it perfectly. Good on you!

Luann Udell
For Lynda, holy cow, you're welcome!

Camille Bodey
Thank you, Walter. I also like Camille Pesaro's comment to his nephew 'Make the seemingly insignificant look fantastic'! (again paraphrasing.)


Bev DeJarnett
This just might the best piece of creative/informative writing I have ever read on FASCO, You should publish it...and I am not kidding. Thanks. Bev DeJarnett

Meera Rao
Thank you for a wonderful article! Need this reminder every so often. My own motto : do art and let art be -variation of live and let live :) I hope to add a link to the article in my next blog post. And I will look for that book!

Luann. Great comparisons analogy between cats and Artists and Artwork. We are an overly judgmental society , for sure ! Here's another one. Let's live and let live. People also judge more , when they are buying something. Thanks for a tolerance perspective! Keep creating ART and stories....Dottie a high priced Artist ***


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